What Is Butyrate? Does it Help or Harm Gut Health?

What Is Butyrate? Does it Help or Harm Gut Health?

An Overview of Butyrate and Its Potential Benefits 

You may have heard of it in relation to digestive health, but what is butyrate exactly? Butyrate is a substance produced by some gut bacteria. In theory, it has beneficial effects that include anti-inflammatory properties and maintaining the barrier function of the gut wall.

But while we may know some of its actions, what is butyrate’s actual beneficial impact, if any, on gut health? Should people with compromised gut health try to nudge their gut bacteria into producing more butyrate or even start taking a butyrate supplement?

In this article we’ll answer “what is butyrate” as well as try to address some of these other questions.

But before we go into more detail, let’s summarize the butyrate basics and offer some reassurance:

  • Butyrate is a beneficial compound produced by a healthy microbiota that protects and nourishes your gut lining.
  • Having higher butyrate levels isn’t always a sign of better gut health. Stool butyrate levels were found to be lower in IBS patients with constipation but higher in IBS patients with diarrhea for example.
  • You likely don’t need to worry about your butyrate levels beyond taking care of your gut health with a diet that works for you. 
  • If you currently have poor gut health, eating to ease your symptoms is the key priority that trumps theoretical concerns over whether you are producing enough butyrate or not.
  • A high fiber and prebiotic diet will promote butyrate formation in people with non-sensitive guts. But if you currently have gut issues, this type of diet can make symptoms worse. Science supports a low FODMAP diet instead. 
What is butyrate: person holding their stomach in pain

What Is Butyrate? Why Is It Important?

Butyrate (which you might also see referred to as butyric acid, butanoic acid or sodium butyrate) is produced by some types of gut bacteria when they ferment dietary fiber.

Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid (SCFA) created when gut bacteria ferment fiber in our gut. It’s also found pre-formed in some high fat foods, particularly butter. Other members of the SCFA family that are produced by the gut microbiota include propionate and acetate.

The reason why there’s more interest lately in butyrate and butyrate-producing bacteria (such as faecalibacterium prausnitzii and Eubacterium rectale) is that research suggests that SCFAs may have implications for gut health [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

However, we first need to make a note: Most of what has been discovered about butyrate to date is from mechanistic studies. These studies can shine a light on the functions of butyrate at a cellular level but tell us very little about how butyrate affects real human health outcomes. Available research suggests that butyrate:

  • Provides an energy source for colon cells or colonocytes (the cells lining the large intestine or colon)
  • Is anti-inflammatory
  • May protect against colorectal cancer /colon cancer 
  • Has antioxidant properties
  • Strengthens the intestinal barrier
  • Stimulates mucus secretion in the intestine
  • Stimulates absorption of fluids and electrolytes
  • Functions as a histone deacetylase inhibitor, or HDAC inhibitor
    • [HDAC inhibition is associated with increased apoptosis (controlled cell death of damaged cells) and reducing cancer risk]

Is More Butyrate Better?

Woman holding a smiley face card near her stomach

While butyrate has important roles to play in the gut, there’s insufficient evidence to show that higher butyrate production is linked with better gut health or can improve an existing gut condition.

Also, when butyrate is measured in various gut conditions, higher levels don’t always correlate with better gut or metabolic health. For example:

Butyrate levels tend to be HIGHER in people with obesity

  • A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis found that higher body mass index correlated with higher levels of butyrate in the stool [2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • An observational study found that butyrate was 28% higher in obese subjects, and propionate (another SCFA) was 41% higher compared to lean subjects [3 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Butyrate levels may be HIGHER or LOWER in people with irritable bowel syndrome

  • A systematic review/meta-analysis of 15 studies found that patients with IBS-C (constipation predominant type) had significantly lower levels of butyrate in the stool compared to controls.
  • However, the same review found people with IBS-D (diarrhea the main symptom) had higher levels of butyrate in the stool compared to controls.

Butyrate levels are usually LOWER in people with IBD 

  • A 2019 SR/MA of 12 observational studies found that inflammatory bowel disease patients (people with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) had lower stool levels of butyrate, propionate, and acetate, compared to healthy controls [4 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • A 2020 literature review concluded that IBD patients tend to have lower levels of good bacteria that produce butyrate and other SCFAs, and children with IBD had decreased levels of SCFAs in their stool [1 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • That said, there is some inconsistency – some data suggests more severe IBD correlates with higher butyrate, while other research suggests that IBD patients had lower levels of butyrate in the stool, but higher levels in the blood, compared to healthy controls [5 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Butyrate in Context

What does all of this mean? There’s really not a simple equation that says high butyrate equals good gut health and low butyrate equals poor gut health.

In fact, high gut butyrate might mean acute inflammation is reducing the ability of intestinal cells to use butyrate for energy. Increased levels of SCFAs in the blood also could indicate the presence of leaky gut in patients with poor gut health [5 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Even more concerning is if people who are already struggling with uncomfortable digestive health issues hear only the good news stories about butyrate and feel pressured to ramp up the fiber and prebiotics in their diet. 

While a high fiber diet is a key way to feed the gut microbes that produce butyrate in healthy people, it won’t necessarily improve gut health in people who already have compromised gut health. In fact, the exact opposite could be true. Many people with bloating and gut sensitivity find their symptoms worsen with some types of carbohydrates and dietary fibers.

Butyrate and Fiber: Finding a Healthy Balance

What is butyrate: Four Principles of a Healthy Diet

For people with IBS, SIBO, IBD, and other forms of gut bacteria imbalance, settling on a diet that can soothe symptoms is a key first step in re-establishing health and beginning the gut healing journey.

No one specific diet works for everybody. However, these four overarching principles can help guide you to an eating plan that improves your gut health:

  1. Eat fewer foods that promote inflammatory response (such as sugar and highly processed foods), and more anti-inflammatory ones (like oily fish and nutrient-rich leafy vegetables).
  2. Control your blood sugar with a low glycemic diet containing minimal refined carbs.
  3. Be aware of which foods trigger or exacerbate your symptoms, and try to minimize or avoid them, at least when your gut is at its most sensitive. 
  4. Figure out what amount of prebiotic carbs and fibers works for you. This can change over time as your gut heals and you become able to tolerate higher levels.

This final point is particularly relevant to the butyrate / gut health narrative. Prebiotics, such as onions, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes, and inulin supplements feed the bacteria that produce butyrate and are therefore often promoted as particularly beneficial for gut health [7 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 8 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 9 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

However the same foods rich in carbs, fiber, and prebiotics that promote butyrate production are also the FODMAPs (fermentable carbohydrates) can cause significant gut symptoms for many people [10 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

If you have a healthy gut, a fiber-rich diet is good for you and will likely optimize your butyrate levels without causing significant issues. But for people with significant gut health symptoms, it’s important to look at the clinical evidence.

The Low FODMAP Diet

What Is Butyrate? Does it Help or Harm Gut Health? - FODMAP%20Food%20List Landscape L

What the research shows is that for many people with gut issues, particularly IBS, the low FODMAP diet can cut down on uncomfortable symptoms and improve health considerably.

This is in spite of the fact that a low FODMAP diet can temporarily reduce butyrate production and bacteria diversity [11 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 12 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. In other words, while the theoretical better thing might be to eat a high fiber diet and boost your butyrate levels, the actual clinical evidence for people who have compromised gut health is in support of the opposite approach. For example:

  • A large 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis found that a low FODMAP diet was associated with a moderate to large improvement in IBS symptom severity and significantly better quality of life scores compared to control diets [13 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis found that a low FODMAP diet was associated with significant improvements in gastrointestinal symptoms and abdominal pain, compared to other diets. No side effects were reported [14 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Reintroducing Foods

A low FODMAP diet involves cutting out several potentially troublesome, carbohydrate-containing foods like wheat, pulses, milk and some varieties of fruit and vegetables such as mango, onions, asparagus, and leeks. 

However, over time, you may be able to start reintroducing these foods again, finding your own individual tolerance level to each one as your gut heals and becomes less sensitive.

This means that you don’t need to worry about a low FODMAP diet temporarily producing less butyrate. It is only a theoretical concern anyway but one that will disappear once you are able to broaden the variety of foods and fiber in your diet once again.

You can also get some butyrate in your diet by including modest amounts of butter (the best direct dietary source). Fewer amounts are found in animal fats, plant oils, and full fat dairy [15 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 16 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Butyrate Supplements

Woman holding 2 pills and a glass of water

Butyrate supplements such as sodium butyrate could, in theory, be a good way of increasing your levels of butyrate without needing to increase intake of high fiber foods you may be sensitive to. 

However, there are a limited number of clinical trials examining the effects of butyrate supplementation and the results are mixed.

On the plus side:

On the downside:

  • A systematic review of eight randomized controlled trials (high-level evidence) found that butyrate enemas were not effective for treating ulcerative colitis, with only one study in the SR showing a significant improvement in disease activity compared to placebo. 
  • The researchers concluded there was “insufficient evidence to guarantee the safety of clinical practice of [butyrate supplementation], either by anal enema or oral administration of capsule or tablet.” 

Probiotics Supplements Help Gut Health

For patients with gut issues, before going down the road of butyrate supplements, it makes sense to take a well-formulated broad spectrum probiotic supplement, as probiotics have extensive research backing for gut health. Research shows that they can:

The quality of probiotic supplements is important, and choosing carefully matters. One study of 26 commercial probiotics found all differed in some way from their label claims, and some even contained unacceptable microorganisms [30].

Do your own quality control by making sure the product you choose has a high potency, has undergone independent laboratory analysis of probiotic quality, and has the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) stamp. Having a mixture of different probiotic species for broader benefit is a good idea.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high quality probiotics to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

The Bottom Line on Butyrate

In summary, butyrate may have some important benefits for gut health, but trying to bump up your butyrate levels by eating lots of fiber and prebiotics could be counterproductive for people with gut sensitivities. It’s better to nurture your gut with the foods and supplements that don’t cause you discomfort, rather than setting back your recovery with a high fiber diet that is conventionally “healthy”.

My book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You, has a comprehensive step-by-step plan of how to turn poor gut health around. Or for more individualized gut health and support, request a consultation.

➕ References
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